Cheese, cheese, glorious cheese! Cubed, shredded, sliced or melted, with more than 1,400 varieties, cheese can be savored and enjoyed in countless ways. This month is dedicated to one very special cheese-related recipe. April is National Grilled Cheese Month and we’re bringing you a scrumptious (and deliciously gooey) grilled cheese recipe. But first, let’s take a look at the long and storied history of the ingredient that makes this celebration possible.
Cheese has been around since before recorded history, so there is no way to know for sure how long humans have been enjoying it. But we do have some evidence that hints at its origins and paints a picture of its journey to our modern tables.
It is believed that cheese may have been discovered originally by accident when humans were transporting milk in bags made from the stomachs of ruminants such as cows. These stomachs inherently contained rennet, which is an enzyme still used in the production of cheese. Another theory suggests that cheese was discovered when people began salting curdled milk in order to preserve it for longer periods of time. While there is no direct evidence to prove either of these theories, there is archaeological evidence to suggest cheese-making existed in in Europe over 7,500 years ago. Pottery shards found at ancient dwellings in Switzerland and Poland are believed to be cheese strainers because they are pierced with many small holes and contain traces of dairy fat.
Clay tablets from around 2000 BCE tell us that the ancient Sumerians were making cheese. An Egyptian tomb mural from approximately the same time period also displays evidence of the production of cheese. Even ancient Greek mythology mentions cheese. In the Odyssey, believed to have been written in the 8th century BCE, Homer writes about the Cyclops’ cheese racks and the process by which he made cheese with wicker strainers.
By the time of the Romans, many different kinds of cheese existed and it became a dietary staple throughout the empire. In Natural History, Pliny the Elder devoted an entire chapter to discussing the variety of cheeses available in the empire and wrote that a cheese from the Roman province of Nemausus (Nîmes) in France was the best and most popular in Rome. As with many other things, the Roman Empire helped to spread cheese-making of various types. Across Europe recipes were traded and new varieties were developed.
When Europeans arrived in the Americas, they brought cheese with them. It enjoyed great success in the New World and was eventually mass produced for the first time when an American dairy farmer named Jesse Williams and his son George “constructed dedicated factory buildings for the manufacture and aging of Cheddar cheese.” The buildings were designed to process the milk of both the Williams’ herds as well as milk from nearby farms. Factories began to pop up all over the United States and Europe and by World War II, factory-made cheese had overtaken traditional cheese.
Today, processed cheeses account for a large percentage of cheese sales, but many people still enjoy slicing into a local, handmade, artisanal variety. With so many types to choose from, cheese never fails to delight the pallet, and when you add bread and grill it, you’ve got a dish to celebrate!
By the way, while cheese has a long history, it was the mutation of a human gene around 7,500 years ago that resulted in the “lactose persistence” that gave our early ancestors the ability to process dairy products—a significant survival advantage. Read our blog to discover how evolution and our genes made National Grilled Cheese Month possible.
Mom’s Gourmet Grilled Cheese Sandwich
*Recipe courtesy of allrecipes.com
- 2 slices of sourdough bread
- 1 tablespoon of butter
- 1 tablespoon of grated parmesan cheese
- 1 slice of American cheese
- 1 slice of cheddar cheese
- Heat a skillet over medium heat.
- Butter one side of each slice of bread.
- Sprinkle Parmesan cheese onto the buttered sides.
- Place one slice buttered side down in the skillet, and place a slice of American cheese and a slice of Cheddar cheese on it.
- Top with the remaining slice of bread, butter side up. Fry until golden on each side.
*Note: Add ham, bacon or your favorite vegetables to make a truly original treat.
Subbaraman, Nidhi. Art of cheese-making is 7,500 years old. Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science, December 12, 2012. http://www.nature.com/news/art-of-cheese-making-is-7-500-years-old-1.12020
 Kindstedt, Paul, American Farmstead Cheese: The Complete Guide to Making and Selling Artisan Cheeses, 2005. pg. 29.